Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Monsters of Incompetence and Atomic Bread


There are three apparently unrelated ideas swirling around my mind.

This post in Monsters and Manuals about the changes in game design shaped by vocal minorities.

This article on the development of ultra-white 'Atomic' bread in the 1950's.

And the book, the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon

I feel a strong relation between the ideas in these sources, yet I am having trouble clearly delineating the nature of the connection to myself. What follows is a kind of internal dialogue to see if I am, in fact, correct. Or if the soup of my mind has failed me again. How can these things be related?

The simplest connection is between Dixon and Manuals.

Monsters and Military Incompetence

The main theme of Dixon's book on military incompetence goes roughly like this:-

Warfare is very difficult and produces enormous stress in the people who undertake it. As a consequence, the organisations that are directed to warfare develop rituals, manners and structures that are designed to control, displace, channel, and otherwise deal with stress. Because these organisations develop such qualities they then attract individuals who find themselves in personal need of these qualities in normal life. (Italics mine.)

In Dixon's own words “..those very characteristics which are demanded by war – the ability to tolerate uncertainty, spontaneity of thought and action, having a mind open to the receipt of novel, and perhaps threatening, information – are the antitheses of those possessed by people attracted to the controls, and orderliness of militarism. Here is the germ of a terrible paradox.”

How does this connect to the post in 'Monsters and Manuals'?

The post suggests that changes in game design for Dungeons and Dragons have been driven by a minority of people who base their beliefs about the nature of RPG's on the most negative assumptions possible, and then ask the creators to change the game to eliminate the possible en-action of those dark assumptions.

Another quote, this one is by K.J.W Craik, I took it from Dixon's book. He used it as a heading for a chapter titled – 'Socialization and the Anal Character.'

... a form of adaptation is thus achieved by narrowing and distorting the environment until one's conduct appears adequate to it, rather than by altering ones conduct and enlarging one's knowledge till one can cope with the real environment.”

So, R.P.G's give us rules to simulate life. They take complex, living situations and break them down to a series of abstract rules that, unlike real life, can be fully and directly comprehended in their totality.

It is possible that because of this R.P.G's attract exactly the kind of people who really need rules for complex living situations. (I can state that this is probably a small, but real, factor in my own attraction to R.P.G's)

It is also possible that the members of the group that are least socially-capable actually produce a greater impact on the engine driving the hobby than the majority of the group. They are 'louder', they are willing to argue for longer, they devote more energy to arguments (especially online). They have poorer social radar which means they will ignore the tacit signals other people use to know when to shut up in a complex situation. They have nowhere else to go, someone whose life is based around D&D will be much, much more directed and focused on changing or influencing the game than someone who has other social options.

If R.P.G's attract this kind of person, and if we also assume that the least socially-capable members of the group also produce the loudest 'signal' in the games audience, then we can see how a game that provides life simulation as a kind of necessity for most of its players in order for them to achieve other aims can be consumed by those for whom those rules are a need in themselves.

I propose that the situation between Military forces and those who are attracted to them is analogous to the connection between R.P.G's and those who are attracted to them. Both will initially attract a wide spectrum of personality types. But ultimately, both can become dominated by those who need the organisation most. These people are not necessarily the ones the organisation most needs.

But how does this connect to Atomic Bread?

Atomic Bread

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is a bread enthusiast. The kind of person who will obsessive search out the methods to create interesting breads from history and then try to recreate them in the kitchen.

In this article he attempts to re-create 50's Wonda-Bread, and while doing so, gives a fascinating analysis of the history of industrial food, our relation with the things we eat and a host of other things. It's an excellent piece and I recommend you take a look if you have the time.

I will briefly summarise the things I understood (or thought I understood) and that seemed to leap forward with a hidden relevance.

During the 1950's, the US government apparently becomes concerned that people are not eating enough bread.

They embark on a massive project to find out why.

They aim to discover what people want from their bread, the results are surprising:- “a clear portrait of America's favourite loaf emerged. It was 42.9 percent fluffier than the existing industry standard and 250 percent sweeter. "

People want really white, really fluffy and really really really sweet, bread. The government tries to give them what they want. They challenge nature itself and produce 'USDA White Pan Loaf No.1'

People hate the bread. They complain about it to a huge degree. They distrust its fakeness, its softness and its whiteness.

They buy it in huge numbers.

They regard it as modern, powerful, they believe in it's artificial enrichments.

There are lots of strange and fucked up elements that go into societies relationship with its bread. But there are two things to remember.

One. It was brought about by large numbers of people trying to do the right thing. The cryptic government bread programs are to strengthen the nation and protect the health of the people. The people want to eat the right thing. The corporations want to make bread faster, better, and sell it large volumes. None of these are essentially evil or immoral.

Two. There is an essential dualness to the peoples relationship to the product. They hate it and they want it. They complain about it and they buy it. They trust it and distrust it.

So how does the bread paradox relate to the Monsters/Incompetence axis?

We can have a human system, generated only by people trying to do the right thing, in which the wrong people are doing the wrong thing, actively disliking it and yet unable to pull away. All driven by human need, and a desire to fulfil it.


  1. Wow, I think that bit on Monsters and Military Incomptence is really smart.

    Most of the most annoying tedious jackoff people I hear in RPG circles seem to be people who never do anything but play RPGs and will tolerate crappy games because they have no other options in life.

    The ones with the most interesting insights seem to be people who have actual lives and so will stop playing if a game reaches a certain level of suck.

    I never understood the military obsession with order until I read a history of the civil war and realized how much chaos and disorder and improvisation is necessarily created during wars. You need to start with order to handle all that disorder. I kinda feel the same way about the sessions I run--I start with things systematized and nailed down so I can handle the lunacy that is about to come.

    But, yeah--the people who just need those rules _period_ lunacy or no--and whose game seems to develop out of how the rules work--they're the tired tedious ones.

    Food for thought. Good on ya.

  2. seconded - and the whitebread analogy is almost too neat. I'm interested in how this propagates through all the iterations of crunchy granola and other hair shirts, too: just what goes into acceptance.

    Do you know Greg Dening's work on naval discipline - eg Mr. Bligh's Bad Language? He's infuriating but interesting.

    1. I did not know about Denings book, I took a look at the reviews and it seems fascinating. I will add it to my Amazon list. Thank you.

  3. This kind of floored me. Well done.

    1. I wanted to add that it brought to mind a quote from Robert Kegan:

      "Successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions, and lifestyles, requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive of them. To resist our tendency to make Right or True that which is merely familiar, and Wrong or False that which is only strange."